The Food Issues Book Club: How Hungry is America, Chapter 9

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

How Hungry is America, Chapter 9:
The Poverty Trap: Why it is So Hard to Escape Poverty in America


The structure of government policies makes it more difficult for working couples with kids to receive food stamps and other aids.  Additionally, people who leave welfare for low-paying work end up with less money - for parents, it would be irresponsible to give up aid when they'll be less able to take care of their children by going to work.  Policies surrounding asset limits also encourage spending, rather than saving.  Poverty makes crises of events such as a broken down car, and people in poverty end up in unbreakable cycles from which they cannot escape.

Personal responsibility is crucial, and "[r]eciprocal responsibility should be a cornerstone of all our public policies."  But that responsibility must be shared among all who receive benefits - including tax breaks.  The stigma attached to government aid sometimes prevents needy families from even applying for aid.  This is particularly galling, given the variety of double standards faced by the poor.

"It certainly harms our collective efforts at convincing low-income Americans that the best way to escape poverty is to work hard and follow the rules when so  many people at the top are making themselves even wealthier by skirting the rules and avoiding work."  That is not to say that the poor should be excused for irresponsible behavior - but rather that the rich shouldn't be.  (Currently they are, and how.)

Conservatives both forced removal of women from welfare rolls, and proclaimed that women could not be successful in the workforce.  Women are demonized for not having children, for having them and then not working so they can be at home, and for working and leaving them with caregivers.  (Not to mention aborting them before having to make one of those three choices.)  There is literally no scenario for which women are not regularly criticized when it comes to children and work.  They are of course also paid less than their male counterparts, even when education levels are the same.

Just as "most" people in poverty are not and have never been on welfare (see Ch. 8 summary), "most" people of color also do not receive welfare.  However, 1 in 4 black people and 1 in 5 Latino people live in poverty - vs. 1 in 10 white people.  People of color are more likely to be on welfare than white people, simply because they are more likely to be poor.

Part of the reason for the higher rate of poverty among people of color is their higher rate of incarceration.  People of color are arrested and serve time for crimes at much higher rates than whites, even for crimes that are committed equally by all races.  Incarceration, then, becomes part of the cycle of poverty for people of color.  Black people are in fact committing more violent crimes, likely because young black men have the most difficult time accessing adequate education and finding gainful employment.  As such, they may be more likely to turn to criminal activity to make ends meet.

Individuals, communities, and government programs alike must take more responsibility for creating positive outcomes for everyone.


This chapter jumps around to many different issues in poverty; apologies that the summary is equally jumpy.  Overall, it discusses the fact that, because of lack of opportunity and punitive, nonsensical rules governing aid, people in poverty often can't find a way out.  Many tend to think that poor people are poor because of the choices they've made - when often it's the opposite: they've made the choices they've made because they're poor.

Here's a question: How did you get your first job?  Or the other jobs you've held?  How did you get the one you have now?  Personally, I got my first real job from a friend of my dad's.  I got my last job and almost all those before it through friends of friends.  I got my current job on my own merits, surely - and also because I knew someone who was working there.

How different would my life have been if my dad hadn't had the money to shop at that first store that I wound up working at?  If I hadn't had the opportunity to go to college and make the friends through whom I found most of my jobs?  What would my life be like now if the people in my community were largely unemployed or working part time at menial, low paying jobs?  With the poverty rates of many New Orleans neighborhoods at 50% or higher, this is the reality for many New Orleanians.

It's easy to talk about "bootstrapping" and to judge realities based on glimpses.  How many times have we heard it?  "How can they be on food stamps when they have those expensive shoes / cable tv / a widescreen plasma / that expensive purse / AN iPHONE?!"  As explained in this chapter, people receiving government aid are punished for saving money in bank accounts.  Regardless of how long it took to save the money that is there or where it came from, the minute they hit the government's stated limit they lose all aid.  When that's the case, if a person receiving aid does manage to scrape together a few hundred bucks - but not enough to live on and not from a renewable or reliable source - why would they do anything but spend it?

Ultimately, there is an enormous gulf between having $100-$200 for a pair of nice shoes or a purse every few months, and having the hundreds or thousands of dollars coming in each month that it takes to be self-sufficient.  When self-sufficiency and larger goals in life like college or home ownership are simply unreachable, people take comfort in the smaller things like expensive shoes.  And we destroy them for it.

Like most things, I don't think that poverty can be seen in black and white, all this or all that.  Poor people aren't poor strictly because of failed policies and institutional racism, or strictly because of bad choices and "laziness."  The answer as to why people are poor, and the way out, lies somewhere in between.  I do think, though, that unless our societal systems are improved so that poor people have a reason to try - that there is some possibility of success for every person - we will never move past the current stasis.  On this I believe that Berg and I see eye to eye.

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